HIV: Your Questions Answered
Knowing more about HIV equips you to protect yourself against it. Here are the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about HIV.
1. What is HIV?
HIV stands for the human immunodeficiency virus, which attacks the body’s immune system. There’s no cure for HIV but there are now various drugs that help control it.
HIV is transmitted through body fluids like blood, semen, rectal and vaginal fluids and breastmilk. It begins with an acute and very contagious infection that causes flu-like symptoms. Once the initial stage passes, HIV turns into a chronic infection. The symptoms ease and there’s less of the virus in your system but you can still transmit HIV. The goal of HIV medication is to keep you in this stage, preventing your HIV progressing into full-blown AIDS.
2. Is HIV dangerous?
Yes, it most certainly is. Since the AIDS epidemic began, over 75 million people have become infected with HIV and over 32 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses.
3. How does HIV affect the body?
HIV destroys the white blood cells (known as CD4 T cells) whose role is to help your body fight d
isease. As your CD4 count drops, your immune system gets weaker. That makes you vulnerable to many viruses and infections including:
- Certain cancers.
In addition, HIV can also cause health complications including kidney disease, liver
disease, neurological problems, and wasting syndrome.
4. Are HIV and AIDS the same thing?
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is the last and most severe stage of HIV infection. By this time, your immune system is badly damaged, you’re vulnerable to many infections, you have a high viral load and you’re very infectious.
5. Will HIV always lead to AIDS?
No. Diagnosing and treating HIV has helped to reduce the incidence of AIDS. If you are diagnosed with HIV and take your medication as prescribed, you may never develop AIDS.
6. How is HIV spread?
HIV is spread when the bodily fluids of an infected person enter the body of another person. It can be spread during vaginal or anal sex if you do not use a condom or if the condom breaks. HIV can also be spread by sharing contaminated needles and syringes. Mothers can also pass HIV to their baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
HIV cannot be spread through kissing, cuddling, shaking hands, sharing cutlery or crockery, eating food someone with HIV has prepared or through toilet seats.
7. Who is at risk of catching HIV?
The people at highest risk of contracting HIV in Australia are:
- Men who have sex with men
- People who:
- Have sex with people from countries with a high rate of HIV infection
- Inject drugs
- Have had tattoos or piercings done overseas using unsterilised equipment
- Have sex with someone at high risk of having HIV.
Rates of HIV are declining among Australian-born gay and bisexual men but rising among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and men born overseas.
8. How can you protect yourself against HIV?
Everyone can (and should) take certain steps to protect against HIV such as:
- Use a condom every time your have vaginal or anal sex
- Never, ever share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment
- Don’t get a tattoo or piercing unless you’re sure the equipment being used is sterile.
If you’re among the people at higher risk of getting HIV (see point 7 above), then it’s wise to take additional steps such as:
- Taking PrEP, an antiretroviral medication that reduces the risk of contracting HIV
- Getting tested for HIV regularly so that you can start treatment if you test positive.
9. Is a condom effective against HIV?
Yes. Condoms are a great way to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections if you use them correctly every time you have sex. Condoms are medical devices so undergo stringent testing to ensure they meet safety standards. They have a low failure rate and can be used for vaginal, anal and oral sex.
10. What are HIV prevention pills?
Back in the good old days when we could travel overseas, you may have planned a trip to a fascinating country that had high rates of malaria. Before you got on the plane, your doctor would probably have given you a supply of antimalarial tablets so you could enjoy your holiday without catching malaria.
HIV prevention pills are a similar idea. If you know you’re at higher risk of catching HIV, then taking a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) tablet can greatly reduce your risk of catching HIV. For it to work, PrEP must be taken as prescribed.
11. How does the HIV prevention pill work?
When PrEP is circulating in your bloodstream, HIV can’t take hold in your body. It’s a bit like having a standing army that’s on the lookout for a particular invader and equipped to fight.
HIV attacks certain cells in your immune system known as CD4 cells. PrEP works by setting up a wall around these cells which stops HIV from getting into the cell and replicating.
12. Where can I get HIV prevention pills?
PrEP is available on the PBS for Australian residents with a valid Medicare card. Your GP can prescribe PrEP or you can order it online.
About PrEP Health
PrEP Health exists to make it easier for you to access PrEP. We follow regulations for dispending PrEP but we do it all online and make it less intrusive by only asking the questions we absolutely have to ask. Sign up here to get started with PrEP.